Similarities between JRR Tolkien and AE Housman are not hard to spot. Both were Oxbridge dons. Both were experts in ancient languages. And both were hugely popular writers whose creative work took them far beyond their academic audiences and whose fame has lasted beyond their own lifetimes.
And the similarities do not end there. Housman’s birthplace and childhood home was Fockbury in Worcestershire. Tolkien spent formative years just 11 miles away in the hamlet of Sarehole. After Tolkien’s family moved to the centre of Birmingham, he attended King Edward’s School, where Housman had studied before him.
On the other hand, while WH Auden, for one, managed to be a staunch admirer of both writers, I am doubtful about any great overlap in their readerships, given the obvious differences in style and temperament. Housman’s masterpiece is a slim volume of short poems; Tolkien’s a huge three-part prose fantasy.
Housman’s style was measured and fastidious, compared with the great outpouring of language (and languages) found in Tolkien. Housman was an atheist, Tolkien a devout Catholic.
The biographies of the two men also diverged greatly in certain important respects. Tolkien saw service on the Western Front, whereas Housman was already in his 50s when the Great War broke out. Tolkien married his childhood sweetheart Edith and they had four children together. The great (and unrequited) love of Housman’s life was another man, Moses Jackson.
Still, this is a comparison worth persisting with. After all, both writers raised a rural shire – Shropshire in Housman’s case, the Shire in Tolkien’s – to an unassailable place in English literature. The lure of the most western counties was immense for both: the horizon of Housman’s boyhood was formed by the hills of Shropshire, “the land of lost content”, the “western brooklands” yearned for in London exile; while, in his scholarly work, Tolkien (according to Professor Tom Shippey) used a series of philological clues to develop a picture of a post-Conquest “far-West shire, cut off from and undisturbed by foreigners, adhering to English traditions elsewhere in ruins”. This academic epiphany, Shippey suggests, helped to set Tolkien’s imagination on the road to The Shire and Middle-earth.
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